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What Movie is your Museum?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Everyone wants to know the secret to running a successful museum. Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle tackled that question in a new book from the AAM Press Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement. Bergeron is associate director for external affairs at the Dallas Museum of Art. Tuttle is president and CEO of the Cultural Data Project, a national organization based in Philadelphia. At the Alliance annual conference in Baltimore this past May, these co-authors talked with the directors of six museums whose stories are shared in the book, asking them what movie title best represents his or her organization’s transformation.
Metaphor can be a simple way to communicate complex reality. The right metaphor conjures images and meanings that often go deeper than what the words themselves convey. Our case study museums selected a range of movies that offer insights into their institutions, and underscore the multiple ways in which the museums approached transformation. While Magnetic outlines six common practices that build “magnetism,” there is no one style of vision, leadership, or engagement that fits all institutions. Each museum’s path is as unique as its collection and the people and community it serves.
“Do the Right Thing” is the movie metaphor chosen by Philbrook Museum of Art. This remarkable villa and collection situated within acres of exquisite formal and informal gardens was once an exclusive preserve for the wealthiest citizens of Tulsa, Okla. Today, it teems with families, children, and an ethnically and economically diverse audience ranging from first-time museum visitors to sophisticated connoisseurs of art. Philbrook became a vital urban asset by adopting a vision shared by the museum and its community: to strengthen the ties that bind its diverse community together through access, service, collaboration, and engagement.
For Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, the phrase, “the journey is everything” describes a philosophy that the staff and board share with Tom Cruise’s “Jerry Maguire.” This living history museum that shines a light on Indiana’s 19th century past transformed itself in the midst of a life-threatening two-year governance dispute. How? By adopting as its North Star an emphasis on visitor engagement. No matter what else happens along the way, the museum stays focused on making audience members feel like “guests” by putting them at the center of every decision affecting participation and planned activity. In the end, Conner Prairie’s story, like Jerry Maguire’s, is a lesson in how magnetic and engaging a powerful conviction can be if shared with others in ways that create emotional connections and invite meaningful participation.

A financial crisis in the mid-1990s turned out to be a pivot point for the Chrysler Museum of Art, and the leadership transition that followed allowed the Norfolk, Va., museum to reinvent itself. A new mission to foster transformative experiences through art, combined with a commitment to serve the area’s diverse population has galvanized the staff, board and community. The Chrysler staff relates to the Christopher Guest movie “Best in Show,” likening the museum’s wide-ranging collection to a group of wildly different breeds and its visitors and staff to the diverse and sometimes eccentric owners and handlers. Rather than resulting in chaos, the museum creates satisfying and humanizing experiences that consistently win high marks from its guests and from the community at large. Fostering a highly empowered, service-oriented culture has not only transformed the Chrysler into a welcoming and participatory museum, it has created an extraordinarily loyal and motivated staff and board culture.
The staff at the Children’s Museum Pittsburgh has an ensemble approach to its work that makes the theatrical metaphor of “putting on a show” particularly apt. By focusing on the needs of children, families and community over the last decade, and by working in a collaborative and often improvisational way that plays to each person’s strength, CMP has nearly quadrupled in size, multiplied its offerings, nearly tripled its membership and attendance, and more than doubled its annual operating income, making it the fastest growing institution that we studied. CMP is now a recognized leader in the museum field, as well as the heart and centerpiece of a campus for children and families in Pittsburgh, and it has become a catalyst for the redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s North Side. In describing CMP’s transformation, the staff offered “Shakespeare in Love,” and one memorable scene in which Shakespeare patron Philip Henslowe (actor Geoffrey Rush) seeks funding from a loan shark to premier a comedy called “Romeo and Ethel.” When the loan shark asks how the business of theater, which Henslowe describes as  “insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster,” always turns out so well, Henslowe replies, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
The Greensboro Science Center (formerly Natural Science Center of Greensboro) in North Carolina joined civic, business and nonprofit leaders to rebuild the economic vitality of a city that had never fully recovered from an onslaught of 1980s corporate downsizing. Embracing the business recruitment efforts of the Action Greensboro consortium, the Science Center focused on preserving endangered species, and enhancing educational opportunities and quality of life initiatives in the region. It also solidified its position as a frontrunner in science education for elementary, middle, and high school students. After attending more than 500 community forums, municipal hearings, and stakeholder meetings, and having won approval of a $20 million bond to build a state-of-the-art SciQuarium for the study of diverse aquatic ecosystems, Director Glenn Dobrogosz and his team chose “Dances With Wolves” to illustrate their transformation.
The oldest and largest of the museums we studied is The Franklin Institute. Change often comes slowly to large-scale organizations, but creating a business-savvy, people- and performance-focused culture has enabled the Institute to broaden its audience, expand its service to the community, enlarge its base of support and increase its earned revenue to an astounding 75 percent of its annual budget. As a result of increased support, the Institute has been able to establish a science-focused magnet high school, engage teens in out-of-school science education and career preparation programs, and become the leading source for science education in Philadelphia and beyond. Institute President Dennis Wint chose television’s “Myth Busters” for his metaphor, in honor of the museum’s fact-based approach to decision-making, but the Development staff won the day with its picks, “A Fistful of Dollars” and, they hope, its sequel, “For a Few Dollars More.”
What movie best characterizes your museum today and what movie would you like it to be in five years? Having this discussion inside your museum may very well be the first step toward becoming magnetic.
You can purchase a recording of this session at the annual meeting here. And if you take Anne and Beth’s challenge to pick the movie that best matches your museum, share your movie title, and your reasoning, in the comment section below!
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